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Joe Locke's Love Affair with Language

Dan Bilawsky By

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On the surface it's not so easy to spot the common thread unifying the greater fabric of Joe Locke's work. Since arriving in New York City in 1981, and emerging as a notable leader on record in the early '90s, this much-vaunted vibraphonist has developed into a protean performer and composer. Duo sessions with pianists Frank Kimbrough and Kenny Barron, a collaboration with vocalist Kenny Washington, dates co-led with pianists David Hazeltine and Geoffrey Keezer, an album with Lincoln's Symphony Orchestra, straight-ahead sounds, left-of-center excursions, and long form works all figure into his discography, making it all the more difficult to spot said common thread. But it's right there, sewn into the music in subtle and not-so-subtle ways: the influence of language—poetry, literature, words, even a simple remark uttered in passing—on the very different medium of music.

For Locke, a metaphor can serve as muse, a turn of phrase can provide the DNA for new musical life, and a poem can be the key to unlocking the door to deeper meaning. And with the release of Love Is a Pendulum (Motéma Music, 2015)—perhaps the most personal and emotionally charged work that Locke has yet produced—that relationship between words and music is fully illuminated.

Love Is a Pendulum

Like a pendulum, the Barbara Sfraga poem that inspired this work slowly swung back and forth in Locke's mind, wearing a permanent groove into his psyche. And Locke has the author herself—a multifaceted writer-lyricist-vocalist who's worked with everybody from pianist Fred Hersch to vocalist Mark Murphy—to thank for it. "I've been friends with Barbara for a long time, and I bumped into her at the The Iridium," Locke recalls. "She gave me this little book called The Subway Series, poems of Barbara Sfraga. I said 'Thank you,' and I took it, and I had it by my nightstand. I started leafing through it one night, and this poem—'Love Is a Pendulum'—really got me."

It's a powerful poem that views love through five metaphorical lenses, each drawn at the outset of a new stanza and undergoing complete examination and dissection in the lines that follow. These metaphorical statements—"Love is a pendulum," "Love is the tide," "Love is perpetual motion," "Love is a planchette," and "Love is letting go"—would go on to serve as compasses for Locke during the album's lengthy development process. "It started gestating around 2010," Locke remembers. "I began with 'Love Is a Pendulum.' I wasn't trying to be programmatic, and I wasn't really thinking about the poem until I was partway into the A section of the composition. Then I said, 'Hmm, this is something I've never really played before—this harmonic sequence, these chords, these arpeggios.' I said, 'This is new to me,' and I just became aware then that her poem had been swimming around," he continues. "So I went back and read the poem and said, 'I want to make this into a suite.'"

The result—curious-sounding and gently probing in certain places, firm and aggressive in others—got the ball rolling, but it didn't define the project, as Locke rejected a one-size-fits-all approach in responding to each stanza. In the case of "Love Is the Tide," he was interested in taking a more programmatic, picturesque tack. "I was thinking about waves crashing and pouring and receding, and the power of that. In the poem, [Sfraga] says 'Love Is the Tide / A pumping, surging undertow that will take you down, pop you up / And drench you in its power.' And when I think about the emotional power around love, I think of the blues and the strength of the blues. So I wanted to have all of this undercurrent or activity—the undertow, if you will. But on top of it all, it's the blues." It comes through loud and clear in the steady, grooving flow that pianist Robert Rodriguez, bassist Ricky Rodriguez, and drummer Terreon Gully lay down beneath Locke and saxophonist Rosario Giuliani's relatively simple melody line.

In both instances, as well as the suite's three other movements, Locke, his quartet mates, and selected guest artists bring Sfraga's wide-ranging reflections on love to life, balancing strength and sensitivity, stability and volatility, newness and repetition, and introspection and extraversion in the music. "Love Is a Planchette" seemingly levitates, as Theo Bleckmann's celestial vocals create a gentle halo supporting Locke's melodic musings, all the while emphasizing the need for a light touch if love is to be able to continually and freely move about; the conversational banter between Giuliani and tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin that launches "Love Is Perpetual Motion," as well as the back-and-forth between Locke and steel pan virtuoso Victor Provost later on, are the very embodiment of that concept; and Locke and Giuliani take an appropriately reflective turn with "Love Is Letting Go."

Phrases Feed Creation

Though Locke takes inspiration from poetry, novels, and other forms of written and oral expression, his imagination seems to be most readily fired by short phrases, often heard almost at random. The song "Available in Blue," which Locke recorded with a quartet on Force of Four (Origin Records, 2008) and subsequently with Lincoln's Symphony Orchestra on Wish Upon a Star (Motéma Music, 2012), is a good example. "It's a ballad; it's probably the simplest ballad I've ever written. And it's one of my best pieces," Locke contends. "I was in a clothing store, and there was a woman in front of me, and she was buying a sweater. I was waiting for my turn [at the register], and I heard the woman say, 'Is this available in blue?' And when she said that, all of a sudden, I don't know what I was thinking. It was almost like I misheard her, thinking she said, 'I'm available in blue.'" Locke continues:

And in my mind, in that moment, I wrote a novella about this woman's life. I went home and sat at the piano and already knew what the title of the song was—"Available in Blue"—and the song just came out. But the song would never have been written if I hadn't heard that woman say, "Is this available in blue?" And all I heard was "Available in Blue." It's about this woman who was a beautiful, sad woman who was looking and yearning for love, and she was available. But there was a sadness with her, so she was "Available in Blue." And that song was born just from hearing a phrase.
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